Jackie Mason, Comedian, and “The Evil that Men [sic] Do…”

When I read Jackie Mason’s obituary in the New York Times (“Jackie Mason, 93 Dies; Turned Kvetching Into Comedy Gold,” July 24, 2021), I felt an emotional pang for the lost days of upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains and the long-ago disappeared comedy routines and closeness of the borscht belt vacation resorts there.

Mason was one of many Jewish comedians who cut their teeth in front of audiences at well-known resorts in the Catskills. Almost all the known names in live comedy from the 1940s, 50s, and 60s have comedic roots in places like Grossinger’s and the Concord, to name a few of the resort venues that were lost to time when jet flight became well within the reach of the middle class and middle-class Jews.

For the price of a week or two during the summer in the Catskill Mountains, a family or individual could experience culture and historic sites around the world. Despite attempts to keep the lifeblood of the Catskills going, the resorts died one by one and by the 1980s and early 1990s, and the vast majority were gone forever.

Shakespeare got it right in Julius Caesar when he wrote: “The evil that men [sic] do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” But life is more complicated than simple comparisons of good versus evil and besides Mason’s comedy routines, his politics beg to be factored into an assessment of his life.

On two occasions, Mason refereed to black people using a Yiddish word that I will not use here. That word has long been associated with racism and its connotation sends anyone holding to a belief in nondiscrimination and fair play running for the hills. Simply stated, the term is both hateful and despicable! But that is not where Mason’s politics stopped. He was an admirer of the far-right Rabbi Meir Kahane. One of Kahane’s most notorious stands was his support of paying Israeli Arabs to emigrate if they did not support Israel’s sovereignty.

In 2003, Mason advised Israeli leaders to remove Palestinians from Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. And if Mason’s racism was not enough, he was a supporter of Donald Trump, a dyed-in-the-wool racist and anti-Semite. Recall Trump’s “some very fine people” referring to the white supremacists and anti-Semites who marched and murdered in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.

Recounting the politics of Jackie Mason takes away from the nostalgia I feel for the Catskill Mountains and the Jewish resorts that once were an oasis for many Jews who were barred from vacationing in other places by restrictive and discriminatory religious policies that were well-established in the US in the 1940s and 1950s. Mason’s politics were racist and his support of a known anti-Semite leaves me with anything but a good laugh.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).